Tuesday, 12 January 2010
Postscript to the tragedy or otherwise...
We have been beating about the central bush in the comments to the last post, wondering whether the affaire Robinson can be described in terms of classical tragedy.
My essential conjecture was that the affaire may be perceived as a tragedy if we look not to the specifics of the people (she being hostile to gays, etc, and, as Lucy hints, who knows what we might discover about him) but at the specifics of the situation. That is the way drama works. We don't know everything about the characters involved in it, only what is necessary for us to apprehend the events as a drama.
The related conjecture was that certain things happen in what we call 'real life' that, in the way they unfold and in the choices they present, approximates to art; that if art is a mirror to life, the moment of the passage through from one side of the mirror to another is the tragic moment.
Once the characters are through the mirror they are no longer simply themselves. They are symbolic figures in the imagination. Something like this happened, I think, in the relationship between the life and poetry of Sylvia Plath. It seems, in some way, she chose to take the passage through. The figure we remember is the one at the point of crossing. That, at least, is the position she holds in the imagination. As for the reality? Reality is elsewhere, where it no longer matters.I have immortal longings in me, says Cleopatra in Shakespeare's play. Then she steps forward and becomes the symbol the play had been preparing her for from the start. That sense of stepping forward is what interests us. Not whether she wore green underwear, picked her nose, or was a bigot in the scenes we don't see. Or whether in real life she was everything art cracked her up to be.
But surely we cannot detach the persons from the symbols they become? No, we can't, but we strip them of everything but the choices they faced within the drama prepared for them.
This was going to be a short post but I can see it can't be as short as I intended. Let me start elsewhere, beat about another bush if you like, and try to find my way back if I can.
In the comments to the post below we were speculating whether Iris Robinson was in the grip of passion or was merely feeling - as Mark put it - an itch that she was arrogant enough to think she could satisfy without consequence. We tend to think passions are in some way grand and noble, whereas itches are there to be controlled. Ascribing passion to this woman, some might feel, would be to excuse her.
On the relatively ignorant but important instinctive level I felt this was a case of passion, not so much because she was having an affair (lots of people have affairs) but because she took the risk of providing money she was not entitled to so that the object of her passion could set up his life. If it was an itch, it was an itch gone mad. The risk she took seemed to me the act of a person out of control. Who, in any case, knows when an itch becomes a passion? I suspect it does so pretty regularly.
It takes two to have an affair. There is the object (in this case the young man, presumed handsome, vigorous and, above all, young) and the subject (powerful but aging, driven by furies - even bigoted furies are furies - that are frustrated). At fifty-nine the subject may be grasping at the last straws of youth. What began as itch could easily pass over into passion and madness. The ego is frail, the body is desperate for reassurance. All things pass. One would give anything to stop it passing. And people do.
We do not find Iris Robinson an attractive figure in life, but this is an existential predicament in which an existential choice presents itself in a form we all secretly understand. We understand it in so far as we understand the pull of desire and vigour and the fear of weakness, incapacity and death. We understand it but we cannot act on it, nor can we fully admit it. Life closes in and we don't want to be closed in but we have responsibilities, affections, security - love even. And still we feel closed in. That, we suspect, is our greatest given existential predicament. Our truths pull us two ways at the same time. The tension is intolerable, so we act as though there were no such tension.
How do you become brave? someone asked. You do it by acting bravely, came the reply. You act. You act as if. You assume the form of your aspiration. You don't even want to know you are assuming it. You want to become, and may become, the thing itself, But the truth of the tension remains. It rolls in waves under dreams and produces shadows and myths.
In tragedy the choices we reject becomes choices that are accepted. That is what the figures in tragedy are there to do. They are there to accept what we reject. This isn't just a matter of criminality. A criminal's arena of choice is a mean little place we wouldn't want to enter most of the time. The arena of passion is different. There the choices are not so clear cut, if only because they are passions, not social ethics. There the ghosts under the waves are larger, the shadows bigger, the figures through the mirror more haunting and imposing. Desire, terror, and power are the big figures in the big arena, and maybe desire - for a while at least - is the biggest. Out of those figures and the spaces through which they move - their arena - we make art. The arena is the poem, the story, the drama.
We know transgressions carry danger. Here, in shadow world, the dangers can perform their ritual revenge.
So maybe we can detach Iris Robinson from the woman whose politics we don't like, whose statements we abhor. Those are part of her catalogue of faults but when it comes to the moment of choosing to take a lover and go for broke, her other qualities diminish. The catalogue is much reduced. By the time she reaches that point she has become the shadow figure who chooses what generally we cannot, in an arena we don't inhabit, an arena within which she already occupies a dramatic role of some kind. Power - and she is associated with the seat of power - is a dramatic force.
It is, by no means, a case of saying: What a tragedy that such a good / heroic / admirable person should come to harm. We don't because we don't believe her to be good, heroic or admirable. It is the very fact that she is flawed, and that one flaw leads to another, eventually to disgrace or madness or death, and that the waves travel out from this into every part of that arena that makes her subject for tragedy.
I have left Peter Robinson out of this because he is - for now - easier to defend, and, for that very reason, is less interesting. For now. His fate remains to be seen. It is the very fact that Iris Robinson is not to be defended that enables her to cross the threshold of the mirror. Power, passion, discovery, devastation, madness, suicide and general collapse are rarely brought together around a single figure.
And in any case, she may, as some suggest, be taking refuge in 'madness; and 'suicide attempts', or may emerge a sadder and wiser woman, or just a ridiculous and somewhat repulsive old bat. If so, that is not tragedy. It may be farce, or it may simply be a drama, even a storm in a teacup. So Gwilym may be perfectly right in the end. But the tragic form is there, the stage is set.
I have always thought that the last days of János Kádár in Hungary, and of Mrs Thatcher as prime minister in the UK, were the stuff of opera. Maybe someone will commission me to write the libretto. Nixon in China, anybody?